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Latin America: Water Politics, Coups and James Bond

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James Bond, the fictitious British spy created by Ian Fleming, has been the protagonist of more than 50 novels and more than 20 films since 1953, becoming a world-renowned icon in the process. The plot of Quantum of Solace (the22nd film in the Bond series, released in 2008) revolves around Bond’s attempts to prevent a group of powerful individuals from orchestrating a military coup in Bolivia and, with the aid of a corrupt Bolivian army general, taking control of the country’s water sources.

While the movie received numerous reviews, it has not, to this point, been analyzed from an academic point of view. This is a mistake as the issue of control of water is certain to increase in importance in the near future. For Bolivia, and most other Latin American countries whose natural resources are increasingly vital sources of power, the message of Quantum of Solace is all too relevant.

Hollywood and International Relations

It has become fairly common for scholars to apply international relations theories to TV and film. In 2011, Foreign Policy published an article analyzing the television series Game of Thrones, based on the books written by George R.R. Martin, from the perspective of international relations theory. (1) Dr. Kelly DeVries of Loyola University recently published another article comparing international affairs to Game of Thrones in Foreign Affairs. (2) Over the years, the Bond stories have also been analyzed from an academic point of view. For example, in 2005 a group of academics published a book titled “Ian Fleming and James Bond: the Cultural Politics of 007.” (3)

Some James Bond films have been polemical. In Die Another Day (2002),  Bond battles against a North Korean army officer who wants to use a powerful satellite to attack the Demilitarized Zone and carry out an invasion of South Korea. When the film premiered, many South Korean citizens called for a boycott of the movie because of its negative portrayal of North Korea. (4)

 Similarly, when Quantum of Solace premiered, the Bolivian government protested. Bolivia Deputy Minister for Culture Pablo Groux said the film portrayed Bolivia as “a country of drug traffickers.” (5) Moreover, some scenes depicting Bolivia were actually filmed in Chile, which did not sit well with the Bolivian government. The Bolivian deputy minister argued that his country has perfect landscapes for filming a movie, and that the producers should not have hired Chilean citizens to pass as Bolivians. (6) It is important to remember that La Paz and Santiago have had tense relations since the 19th century War of the Pacific, from which Chile emerged victorious and Bolivia lost its coastal territories and become a landlocked country.

Quantum of Solace in IR Terms

In Quantum of Solace, a shadowy organization wants to gain control of massive water resources in Bolivia, putting the country in an ideal position to set prices for access to water for both the Bolivian population and international consumers. In reality, the struggle for control of natural resources throughout Latin America, particularly in Bolivia but also in other countries, has already begun.

Another relevant part of the plot is that Bond has to prevent an exiled, corrupt Bolivian general from staging a military coup—assisted by foreign powers—to overthrow the government in La Paz. Unfortunately, the real Bolivia does indeed have a long and complicated history of military coups. In fact, regime changes have continued to occur in Bolivia and throughout the region over the last decade.

Credit: Reuters

Finally, in the movie, the villains comprise a varied group of powerful individuals, including a rich “environmentalist” who supports the coup because he wants to buy a seemingly barren portion of Bolivian desert from the corrupt military officer. If successful, his company would gain control over Bolivia’s sole water utility. This raises the question of how international companies are regarded in Latin America today.

Water Politics in Latin America

The most high-profile incidents concerning water in Cochabamba, Bolivia, occurred between 1999 and April 2000. The conflict is commonly known as “Cochabamba Water Wars,” or simply Bolivia’s Water Wars. An April 2006 Inter Press Service article reported on the legacy of those “wars,” characterizing them as protests by locals against the Bolivian subsidiary Aguas del Tunari, which was owned by a consortium of the U.S. transnational company Bechtel, Italy’s Edison, and Spain’s Abengoa. (7) The consortium hiked water rates to local water consumers by as much as 200 percent after winning a 40-year concession in closed-door negotiations. With such price increases, water bills amounted to between 20 percent and 30 percent of the income of poor households. (8)

 Expounding on the effects of top-down privatization in his book “Dignity and Defiance: Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization”, Jim Shultz, director of the Cochabamba-based Democracy Center, argued:

The contract gave Bechtel and its co-investors control of the city’s water company for forty years and guaranteed them an average profit of 16 percent for each one of those years, to be financed by the families of Cochabamba. No one at the negotiating table could have had any doubt what that would mean for Cochabamba water bills. (9)

In other words, the process of water privatization that transpired in Bolivia in 2000 is eerily similar to the premise of Quantum of Solace.

Credit: Jorge Ilieff

Water-related incidents have also occurred in other countries. For example, in late 2011, Newmont Mining Corporation’s proposed gold and copper mining project in northern Peru provoked major protests due to concerns that it would pollute local waterways vital for both human consumption and irrigation projects. Newmont’s extraction plans, known as the Conga project, could extract as much as 580,000 to 680,000 ounces of gold per year. (10) The project’s fate is currently unclear, as new discussions are taking place between the Peruvian government and the company. According to the online news service Marketwatch, “Recently Newmont said in a presentation posted on its website that first potential production for Minas Conga is now scheduled for early 2017. The company had previously said that it expected production to start in late 2014 or early 2015.”  (11) In early June, the Peruvian government declared that it was awaiting Newmont’s decision on whether to continue developing the project or not, after Lima gave the international company new environmental conditions. (12)

Tensions regarding proprietorship of water have also appeared in Colombia. According to the Colombian project of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), Greystar Resources Ltd. of Canada had planned to build an open-pit mine (for gold and silver) in Angostura, the heart of Colombia’s Santurban wilderness of high-altitude forests and wetlands called paramos. (13) Colombia’s Ministry of Environment, however, denied Greystar’s environmental license application in May 2011. For the time being, this means that the forests and wetlands are safe.

Meanwhile, in Chile, the Mapuches indigenous to Chile have consistently protested against the construction of a hydropower plant on the Panqui River that would flood several of their communities. (14) Last February, five Mapuche-Pehuenche communities also complained that the municipal government of the southern Lonquimay region had yet to provide them with access to potable water. (15)

Coups in Latin America

In addition, regarding the potential for a military coup in Bolivia in the film, it is true that the Andean nation has a troubled history of civilian and military coups. Indeed, the country has suffered numerous military overthrows since the 1960s. Among some of the most notable coups in Bolivia are those that occurred in 1964, led by Vice President Rene Barrientos; in 1971, led by Colonel Hugo Banzer Suarez; and in 1980, led by General Luis Garcia.

Credit: Archivo Lucio Flores / La Razon (Bolivia)

 Although the era of military coups in Bolivia seems to have ended, the country continues to be a nation marred by violence and governmental instability. The last row of regime-changing civil unrests occurred in 2003, when, under pressure after more than 80 people were killed during massive protests against natural gas exports to Chile, President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned. (17) In the aftermath, Sanchez de Lozada’s vice-president, Carlos Mesa, ascended to what would be a short-lived presidency. Mesa submitted his resignation in March 2005 when he was unable to restrict the nationwide protests against fuel prices, and civic and business leaders in the province of Santa Cruz called for greater autonomy. (18) While the Bolivian Congress originally rejected Mesa’s resignation, he resubmitted it in June of the same year and was finally permitted to step down in the face of continued popular protests. (19) Finally, in 2008, major protests in the eastern Bolivian provinces of Beni, Chuquisaca, Pando, Tarija, and Santa Cruz threatened to topple Evo Morales’ government. (20)

Unfortunately, coups have continued to occur in Latin America in the past decade, though not as violently or as frequently as in previous eras. In 2002, for example, major protests in Venezuela overthrew the Hugo Chavez-led government and temporarily installed an opposition government, though this Chavez returned to power two days later. (21)  It is widely believed that U.S. intelligence services were, at the very least, aware of the potential for a coup in that country. (22) Two years later, in 2004, demonstrations forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in Haiti . Also, in 2009, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya’s push for constitutional reforms were strongly disputed by the Honduran Congress and armed forces, and his persistence ultimately led to his deposition. (23) In June 2009, Zelaya was removed from the presidential palace and exiled by the Honduran military to Costa Rica in the middle of the night, still wearing his pajamas. (24) Most recently, in 2010, police officers and soldiers organized significant protests in Ecuador, during which President Rafael Correa was tear-gassed by his own police. While Correa survived the protests and maintained his position as head of state, he called the protests “an attempted coup, an attempt to destabilize the government, which failed thanks to the Ecuadorean people.” (25)

International Companies

At variance with the corporation portrayed in the Bond film, not all firms pursuing resource extraction projects have dishonorable intentions. However, many of the populations of communities where multinational corporations operate feel that their local resources are being drained for someone else’s profit. For example, the 2000 Water Wars in Bolivia saw the population of Cochabamba pitted against Aguas del Tunari, which had hiked up the price of water exponentially after receiving proprietary recognition from La Paz.

 Furthermore, there are ongoing concerns regarding resource extraction, such as the threat of pollution—or all-out destruction—of the environment and the way of life of local populations. In order to counter Newmont’s bad publicity in Peru, Roque Benavides, the president of a partnering company, has tried to improve the company’s image among the inhabitants of Cajamarca where the Conga project is located. He recently said, “A social disaster destroys share price. … Let’s say I have interest in the shares continuing to grow, and we will not get into a project that goes against the company and that goes against my countrymen.” (26) Nevertheless, the Conga project remains highly unpopular among the population, and those who speak in favor of it are ostracized. In mid-May, former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo was scheduled to give a conference in Cajamarca, but was unable to do so because of his declarations in favor of the Conga project, which prompted protesters to throw trash on the streets where the conference was to be held. The former head of state was even impeded from getting out of his car. (27) Toledo eventually returned to his hotel in the northern city and the conference was cancelled.


Hollywood has become a growing source of inspiration for analyses by IR scholars due to the plausible plots that are being used by screenwriters. Quantum of Solace portrays powerful individuals attempting to carry out a regime change in Bolivia in exchange for control over the country’s water resources. While such plans are not as ambitious as those carried out by other Bond villains, they reflect a reality seen in many parts of Latin America.

A number of Latin American nations, Bolivia in particular, have a history of military and civilian coups. While these have not been as common in recent years, Bolivia continues to have historically shaky governments: since the Water Wars in 2000, two presidents have resigned due to resource-related protests, and major protests have threatened to topple the current Morales administration. It is important to mention that in contrast to the South Korean boycott provoked by Die Another Day, the author of this report has not been able to find any indigenous objection regarding how the Bolivian government and military were portrayed in Quantum of Solace. Nevertheless, Bolivian government officials protested how their country was portrayed while Chile protested the use of Chilean territory and people in the film as they were portrayed as Bolivian. (28)

The type of villains in the latest Bond movie may not be as ambitious as the ones in previous films, but both regime change and control (and the protection) of vital natural sources are real issues in Latin America. Undoubtedly, Hollywood will continue to produce big-budget films starring superheroes with marvelous powers, a stretch of the imagination for the time being. But when it comes to the struggle for control, and protection, of profitable natural resources − be they gold, oil, or something as common as water− these plots reflect real social and political tensions, as IR scholars and experts well know.

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